Sketches of Catalonia Vol. 1: Suite for Dali
Edgetone EDT 4023

Arriving out of left field — well, San Francisco at least — this CD offers up West Coast jazz of unexpected verve and originality from a hitherto uncelebrated composer.

Composer and acoustic bass player here is Bill Noertker, 43, who usually plays with the Lords of Outland and in other groups with saxist Rent Romus. Someone who studied jazz history and theory with trumpeter Bobby Bradford and composing with Albert Ryz-Ryzky, the bassist also interacts musically with painters, writes soundtracks and pieces for dance and helps organize concerts in the Bay area.

Partisan of program music — he’s also involved in writing a jazz ballet inspired by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies — Noertker’s SKETCHES OF CATALONIA is a tribute to Salvador Dali (1904-1989), the Catalan painter whose work included dadaist, religious and mystic symbolism. Unwisely packaged with a cover that resembles the Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaboration, SKETCHES OF SPAIN, this CD is anything but a Young Lions take on the Davis-Evans masterwork.

SPAIN’s authority comes from Evans’ orchestrations and reinterpretations of an already existing concerto plus Davis’ soloing. SKETCHES, features seven original Noertker compositions with solo work split among the five capable members of his combo. Illustrative rather than interpretative, the tunes meander in and out of time, taking their shape from the initial thought processes rather than much use of extended techniques or compositional motifs.

Featuring two saxophonist-flautists, a trumpeter plus bass and drums, Moxie isn’t Evans’ brass-heavy 23-piece SPAIN band either. In execution, in fact, the work has much in common with post-bop/post-cool discourses. It’s sort of what you would expect to hear from an updated Shelly Manne and his Men or Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet. You could call it modern mainstream, if the neo-cons hadn’t desecrated that term with their rigid, backwards-looking musicality.

Perhaps it’s the freer Bay-area atmosphere in this live recording, but most of the tunes are jaunty and mannerly, true to Noertker’s conception without creating fake commotion or crowd pandering lines.

Dissonant touches seem to be at a minimum as well, except for the occasional tart overblowing or heartfelt slur from either Annelise Zamula, a former member of the Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet, or Jim Peterson. On tap for “Portrait of My Dead Brother” is ethereal double flute counterpoint from Peterson and Zamula. While wiggling unison reed lines surmounted by tenor saxophone honks are featured on “The Chemist of Figueras Looks for Nothing at All”, more often the two are involved in riffing or andante pecking.

Trumpeter Hugh Schick makes his presence felt with a chromatic solo over pedal point bass lines on “Telephone Grilled Sardines at the End of September”. Meanwhile polyharmonic horn passages and a tango rhythm from bass and drums presage impending war conflict much more clearly than another track, which Noertker insists, features “trance-inducing horn lines”.

In other spots Schick’s forte is light toned triplets, up-to-date, but not further out than Joe Gordon would have played with Manne or how Brownie played on his own with Roach. A steady timekeeper who favors press rolls, backbeats, hi-hat turnarounds and double flams, drummer Niels Myrner keeps things moving. Even Noertker only rarely varies his straightahead bass solos with rippling pizzicato effects and double-stopping slurred fingering.

“Family of Marsupial Cantaurs”, is a foot tapper with waltz time harmonies and nasal, polyphonic reed tones. The final tune, with its rollicking, smeared textures and strummed than descending bass line, suggest Kurt Weill’s cabaret music, an irony when you recall Weill’s flight from Nazism, compared to Dali’s rapprochement with Generalissimo Franco.

Politics aside, Noertker’s SKETCHES OF CATALONIA is a fine disc that demands an encore. Considering it’s subtitled Vol. 1, that shouldn’t be too long in the offing.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Galatea of the Spheres 2. Portrait of My Dead Brother 3. The Hats 4. Exploding Head in the Style of Raphael 5. Telephone Grilled Sardines at the End of September 6. The Chemist of Figueras Looks for Nothing at All 7. Family of Marsupial Cantaurs

Personnel: Hugh Schick (trumpet); Annelise Zamula and Jim Peterson (alto and tenor saxophones and flute); Bill Noertker (bass); Niels Myrner (drums)